Feb. 15, 2000


Biosphere 2's Reach To Extend Globally

By Kurt Sternlof

Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona at night

After establishing itself as Columbia's "western campus," Biosphere 2 has set its sights on becoming a premier international ecological and environmental center.

"Our goal is to develop Biosphere 2 into a world center for education, research and discourse on earth systems science, policy and management issues," said Columbia Executive Vice Provost Michael Crow. "Biosphere 2's growing reputation as a research institute, combined with its excellent academic, research and conference facilities, make it a perfect place for leaders from government, industry and the academic world to come together to address the key issues of the next century."

The Biosphere 2 Center capped an active 1999 by winning the Columbia Board of Trustees' enthusiastic commitment to continue and expand support for the unique facility through 2010. Acting just before Christmas and a full year before the expiration of their original five-year commitment, the Trustees approved $20 million in new support over the first five years of a 10-year extension of their management partnership with Edward P. Bass, founder and owner of the Biosphere 2 complex. Bass himself has pledged an additional $30 million in support of Columbia's master plan for the facility, which includes new dormitories and a student center, the expansion of existing educational programs and the creation of new ones, and the enhancement of its research capabilities and public outreach programs.

Currently able to host 100 undergraduates in its popular Earth Semester Program, the master plan for Biosphere 2 anticipates a regular enrollment of 300 to 350 students by 2003. The plan also envisions the center as a premier location for earth systems research, public education and global policy discourse.

"The Biosphere 2 Center now has three clear goals," said President and Executive Director William Harris. "First, with the support of Columbia University, we will create an outstanding undergraduate education program for students from around the world. Second, with the support of the research community and organizations like the Packard Foundation and the Volvo Corporation, we will use the Biosphere 2 facility to conduct groundbreaking research in a variety of areas. Finally, with the growing national interest in Biosphere 2 and the support of the local community, we will develop Biosphere 2 into a center of learning for people of all ages and all walks of life."

The Packard Foundation recently awarded Columbia and Biosphere 2 a five-year grant of $960,000 to support research into the effects of varying temperature and CO2 levels on earth's ecosystems by focusing in on coral reefs and cottonwood trees. The sealed, self-sustaining Biosphere 2 laboratory, which houses six fully functioning ecosystems representative of earth's natural environment -- from ocean to rainforest to dessert -- enables researchers to model natural systems under controlled conditions with unprecedented realism.

"Only in the Biosphere 2 facility, where temperature and CO2 can be carefully manipulated and the impact on coral and cottonwoods precisely measured, could an experiment like this be performed on such a large scale," Harris said.

"What makes the Packard grant so exciting," said principal researcher and Columbia Professor Wallace Broecker, "is its clear recognition of the value of interdisciplinary research in addressing the most important problems facing our planet. The unique capabilities of the Biosphere 2 lab will enable our research effort, a collaboration of earth scientists with plant and marine biologists, to produce results that have more immediate applicability to the real world."

Columbia forged a partnership with the Volvo Corporation in February 1999 to promote cooperation between research institutions and industry toward common environmental goals. "Helping Biosphere 2 to realize its full potential as an incubator of innovative environmental research, education and action is at the centerpiece of our partnership with Volvo," Crow said.

Since assuming management of Biosphere 2 in 1996, Columbia has already invested several million dollars to develop the campus. New dormitories have been built and several existing buildings have been entirely renovated to support the growing community of students and faculty, as well as the growing number of visitors from around the world. A new student center that features a computer lab, fitness area, health services facility, student union and reading room was recently completed with support from the Bert W. Martin Foundation.

But the centerpiece of new construction to date is the astronomical observatory that boasts a 24-inch, research-grade reflected-light telescope. Dedicated in October, it is already in use as a teaching tool for Biosphere 2's new undergraduate "Universe Semester" program, its short courses on astronomy open to the public, and the Passport to Learning program that introduces school-age children to the wonders of their earth.

"The new observatory and Universe Semester illustrate the depth of Columbia's commitment to building Biosphere 2 into a world-class research and education campus," Harris said. "We're very proud of what's going on here, and we're excited for the future. If you can't make it out to visit in person, please stop and see us at our web site -- http://www.bio2.edu/.